by Rel Davis, Minister, Unitarian Fellowship of South Florida
In Mexico, there are two "patron saints." The first, and foremost, with a holiday on December 12, is Guadalupe, called variously St. Guadalupe and Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Church now says this is the Virgin Mary who made an appearance before a young man named Juan Diego in December 1531. She looked like an Indian maiden and she appeared on Tepeyac Hill near Mexico City.
Although she is assumed to be the Virgin Mary, she is nonetheless called the
"patron saint" of Mexico. She is most likely nothing but the ancient Aztec goddess Coatlique, whose holy day also happened to have been December 12.
The other saint you hear about a lot in Mexico is the mysterious "San Juan de los Lagos," Saint John of the Lakes. There never has been such a person, of course. It was obviously an ancient lake god, presumably the patron saint of Mexico City, which was built on top of Lake Texcoco. He could have been Tpoztecatl, ancient god of agriculture, or even Huitzilopchtli, sun god of the Aztecs.
All over the world, in Roman Catholic countries, you will find "patron saints"
who never existed. They are the early pagan gods and goddesses converted to Christianity for public relations purposes.
The earliest recorded "conversion" of a pagan goddess was Saint Sophia in Asia Minor. Very early, Christians had a hard time converting the populace of Greece and the Hellenic cultures of the region because the people were quite happy with their goddess, Minerva, also known as Pallas Athena, the patron deity of the city of Athens.
The word "pallas" is the ancient Greek term for a maiden. Athena is thought (by Robert Graves and others) to be a version of Anatha, the Sumerian Queen of Heaven. With the title of Pallas, she would have been the ancient Goddess in her maiden aspect.
Minerva was universally called Sophia -- wisdom. So a "Saint Sophia" was invented, and churches all over Asia Minor were built in her honor. She was even said to have had three daughters -- St. Faith, St. Hope and St. Charity!
The entire region converted to Christianity as soon as the church declared the region's favorite goddess to be a Christian saint.
So it really wasn't the inherent stupidity of the Irish, as some scholars allege, that allowed them to be converted in a similar way.
They reacted like people all over the world did. Make my god a Christian saint and I'll become a Christian.
Interestingly, the Irish goddess converted to Christianity was the same as Pallas Athena, it was the maiden aspect of the Goddess. Where in continental Europe, the Mother aspect was chosen -- witness all the cathedrals built to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God -- in Ireland, as in Asia Minor, it was the maiden goddess honored.
The Irish goddess was called Brigid (pronounced "breed") or Brigit. She was a triple goddess (some said all three were named Brigid!) and she was the goddess of wisdom (like her Asia Minor counterpart). Her sisters were the goddesses of healing and smithcraft respectively.
At Kildare there was a temple to Brigid, with a perpetual fire kept by 19 priestesses. The number 19 was used because there are 19 years in the Celtic
"great year," when the solar and lunar calendars coincide. Brigid was always called "The Three Blessed Ladies of Britain" or "The Three Mothers" and she was identified with the moon and the three phases of the moon. (As such, she is also identical to the ancient earth goddess, Hecate.) It was common for the ancients to accept their goddess as being three people. This is where the Christians got their concept of the trinity.
Actually, Brigid can be traced back to Illyricum, the ancient land now occupied by Croatia (and extending over Serbia, Bulgaria, and Austria). Her shrine was in the city of Brigeto and she was called Brigantes, accepted by the Romans as identical to Juno Regina, Queen of Heaven. Her followers were often called Brigands, or outlaws, and Robin Hood was most likely the title of a leader of
"brigands" fighting against the Christian conquerors.
The Gaelic Celts brought Brigid with them when they left their original home in Galatia -- in Asia Minor, no less, and moved across Europe to settle in what is now Ireland.
In Ireland, the Church could not talk the people into giving up the worship of Brigid, so they "converted" her to St. Bridget, claiming she was a nun who founded a convent in Kildare (where the goddess' temple already was located.)
The stories about "St. Bridget" were the same stories told about the goddess: that everywhere she walked, flowers and shamrocks sprang up (the three-leafed shamrock, of course, was the symbol of the triple Brigid), that in her shrine it was always springtime and that in her convent the cows never went dry -- all fertility stories.
The Irish priests said, however, that Brigid wasn't really a saint at all: she was the Queen of Heaven, the mother of Jesus herself. The Church ruled that since Bridget couldn't be the mother of Jesus (Mary already had that job all sewed up), she could be the step-mother of Jesus -- which meant, of course, that Jesus had to have been raised in Ireland, a story frequently told in the old days.
The goddess Brigid had a consort named Dagda, meaning "father." The Latin word for father was Patricius, so the Church made him a saint as well, "St. Patrick."
The myths say Patrick was the person who Christianized Ireland in the year 461, but we know Ireland actually was converted in the seventh century by Augustine of Canterbury, who was responsible for getting Patrick canonized.
Patrick, the sun-god, has his day on March 17, the beginning of spring in Ireland.
Interestingly, the churches in Ireland dedicated to "St. Bridget" were also dedicated to the O'Kelly clans. All the baptismal fees in those churches belonged to the O'Kellies. If you know any Irishman named Kelly you can tell him or her something about the history of their name. The word means they are descended from the kelles, or sacred harlots (to use the Church name) of the goddess Brigid.
The goddess' priestesses were not allowed to marry, so they were free to choose any man they wished. Children born to such unions were called O'Kelly, because they were born of a kelle.
Every woman today who gets married is given the goddess name, of course, for the word "bride" is simply an alternate spelling of Brigid.
The feast day of Brigid is February 1, which was also considered the first day of spring to pagans. It is the day of quickening, when vegetation comes alive (quickens) in the bowels of the earth. For this reason, it is often called Imbolc, a Celtic word meaning "in the belly." It's also called Oimelc ("ewe's milk") for this was also the lambing season in ancient Ireland.
In ancient Rome, the first two weeks of February were called the Lupercalia, in honor of Lupercus (or Faunus), god of agriculture, and Venus, goddess of fertility. It was also a festival of quickening, and also honored the goddess as maiden. It involved parades and the lighting of fires.
Lupercalia ended, of course, on February 14, a day we now call St. Valentine's Day, after yet another spurious "saint." The name was most likely originally
"Gallantine's Day," the day of the lover. On this day, a couple could agree to a trial marriage, living together until the next Lammas, August 1. "Will you be my Valentine?" was the way a woman would propose such an engagement to a man.
(The Valentine "heart," of course, was not the physical heart we are acquainted with, but another part of the anatomy entirely.)
Fires have always been important on Imbolc. The fires symbolized the new-born sun, born at Yule and the sparks of new life in springtime. One ancient custom was the lighting of candles in every window of the house, to let the world know of coming spring. The sight of every home blazing with candles must have been comforting to people still feeling the bitter cold of February up north!
The Church made this time the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin ("virgin"
was just another word for "maid," of course) and they called in Candlemas, the feast of candles. Since people were already lighting candles at home anyway, the Church declared this a time to go to church and get your candles blessed.
During the Burning Times, the great Inquisition of Europe, it was said that witches considered Candlemas their most sacred festival. This was probably the Church's way of warning people not to take Brigid too seriously.
One of the most important customs at Candlemas in ancient times was the forecasting of weather. In the old English poem: "If Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year." It was once thought that the quarters (the equinoxes and solstices) foretold the weather directly (i.e. a warm Christmas meant a warm winter) while the cross-quarters (Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain) foretold the weather negatively.
We keep this custom by calling February 2 "Groundhog's Day" and predicting the rest of the winter by whether or not the groundhog sees its shadow or not. If it sees its shadow then Candlemas Day will be "bright and clear."
There were a number of customs associated with this day. One was the baking of
"Bridget's bread" on this day. This goes back thousands of years to the baking of cakes for the Queen of Heaven spoken of in the Bible. The last of the precious grain stored over the winter would be prepared into cakes on this day, in the prospect of much more grain in the year ahead.
Another custom called for the making of "Bridget's crosses" out of straw. The cross was the ancient symbol for the sun (the rays of the sun seem to come out in cruciform shape) and the straw crosses were in honor of the reborn sun. The crosses would be placed around the home for protection during the following year.
One young woman each year would also be chosen to represent the goddess, the
"Bride." She would wear a crown of candles on her head that day, again in honor of the sun.
The meaning of this holiday for us is simply this: this is the time of quickening, the time of new life. It's a time to be thankful for all the new life that arises in spring, a time to plan ahead for the new year and a time to begin the long processes of making a living, bringing in a new crop or getting on with our lives.
New projects are well begun on Brigid's Day. This is a time of hope, a time for looking positively at one's world.
This week, go out and buy a candle for the Maiden Goddess -- and for yourself.
This week, light it and place it in a window of your home. Focus all your hopes and dreams for the coming year onto that candle. And dedicate it to hope.
Further reading (free e-books):Leo Ruickbie - Imbolc Festival Of The Goddess Brigid
Francesca De Grandis - Goddess Initiation
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